Committed Perception: Merleau-Ponty, Carroll, and Iranian Cinema

By Erfani, Farhang | Philosophy Today, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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Committed Perception: Merleau-Ponty, Carroll, and Iranian Cinema


Erfani, Farhang, Philosophy Today


My goal in this essay is to explore how viewers perceive and connect with performing art. Aristotle framed this issue by arguing that the spectator identifies with stage artist's emotions. This question is now widely debated in philosophy of film. Among contemporary philosophers, Noel Carroll has argued against the Aristotelian position, submitting that viewers cannot truly identify with characters. Carroll proposes a different, asymmetric theory of emotion, which in his view better accounts for viewers' commitment to a given performance. A prolific philosopher, Carroll has written much on this topic and his insights are undeniably valuable. Yet, as important as Carroll's contribution is, I find his argument for why viewers are engaged by a particular film or character incomplete. I wish to argue that Merleau-Ponty's account of embodied subjectivity gives us a better picture of this phenomenon. I will first outline Carroll's objections to the classical theory of emotion and his suggested alternative. I will then turn my attention to Merleau-Ponty's account of embodied subjectivity. In the concluding segment of this essay, in support of the Merleau-Pontyian approach, I will turn my attention to Iranian Cinema and its unique use of child actors.

Carroll on Emotions

In Carroll's view, film theory does not pay sufficient attention to the role that emotions play in keeping us "glued" to the screen.1 He readily acknowledges that psychoanalysis, an important perspective for many film theorists, "is concerned with emotions." But Carroll argues that psychoanalytic "critics seem more concerned with certain generic ill-defined forces like desire and pleasure that they speak of without prepositional modification. For example, they write of Desire with a capital 'D', rather than of small -d desires for this or that."2 Though his position regarding psychoanalysis is debatable, the strength of Carroll's position is in his revision of classical theories of emotion.

In a nutshell, Carroll maintains that a "strong sense of character-identification"the Aristotelian theory-"would imply a symmetrical relation of identity between the emotions of spectators and characters. But generally, the relation is asymmetrical; the characters, in part through their emotions, cause different emotions in spectators."3 As captivated and lost as we can be in a movieand Carroll's main argument against the theory of identification came in his work on horror, a genre which clearly requires the viewer's attunement-we do not share the character's exact same emotions. In a horror movie, "the character presumably believes that she is being attacked by a werewolf, but the audience member does not."4 Better yet, in many horror movies, a good deal of the viewer's experience is based on seeing the monster lurking, preying on innocent people, who go about their business, ignorant of their horrific fate. We know this; most characters do not, making a full identification with those characters impossible. Nor do we fully identify with the monster, whose reasons and motivations are beyond us. To go back to Aristotle's favorite genre, if " we feel pity at Oedipus' recognition that he has killed his father and bedded his mother, that is not what Oedipus is feeling. He is feeling guilt, remorse, and self-recrimination. And, needless to say, we are feeling none of these."5

In addition to an asymmetry of experiences, there is also an asymmetry of knowledge. Carroll argues that audience members in general know more than characters do. We have a quasi-omniscient perspective. We simply have more information than most characters. We cannot "take on" their emotions:

When we are happy at the end of the movie because the lovers have finally gotten together, that is not a function of the fact that we are in love with the characters. Which one of the characters would it be, anyway? Both? But if we are in love with both the characters, then we are in an emotional state that neither of the characters is in, since each of them is only in love with one person.

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